I don't have a personal life anymore," quipped Kathleen Larey Lewton, Fellow, PRSA, surveying the piles of health care-related paperwork on her desk. "This is killing me."
The massive undertaking required to implement President Clinton's health care reform proposal means that Lewton, vice president of the health care division of Porter/Novelli in Chicago, probably won't resume her social life anytime soon. She, like hundreds of other health care communicators, will simply be too busy making sense out of the massive piece of legislation.
"The reform impacts on every aspect of the health care industry: physicians, health care organizations, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, dentists and dental plans," said Lewton, co-author of Public Relations In Health Care: A Guide For Professionals. "And that's just the inner circle. In the outer circle, you have medical manufacturers and suppliers, and companies that have huge contracts with hospitals."
Enormous educational needs
For public relations practitioners specializing in the health care field, the possibilities are immense. "There will be new opportunities for people representing these new health alliances," predicted Wayne L. Pines, president of the health care practice for Washington, DC-based APCO Associates, an affiliate of GCI Inc. Public Relations. "There are enormous educational needs because people need to understand the new health care system.
"Depending upon how the pharmaceutical companies fare, there will definitely be new challenges," he added. "Drugs will have to be judged on a cost-efficient basis. Hospitals will be downsizing. There will be new services at community health centers and schools."
Frank J. Weaver, president of Dallas Medical Resource, said: "The challenge is preserving the free enterprise of medicine in a socially responsible fashion. If that's not a rallying cry for public relations, I don't know what is."
The plan put together by Hillary Rodham Clinton's task force is a complicated undertaking in which changes in one area of society will have a domino effect on others. Lewton equates the situation to a five-level chess board. "A move on Level One can impact on Level Four," she said. "A positive impact on Audience A can have a negative impact on Audience B."
Managing the transition
As a result, public relations professionals must be able to look into the future, and create carefully plotted approaches for a society in transition. "The 'who makes the decisions about health care?' may change," Lewton said. "It's the job of public relations to help clients anticipate what's going to happen one or two years down the pike, and come up with strategies to deal with those changes. We must foresee 10 different scenarios."
Weaver believes that this emphasis on strategy can only enhance the field's value. "Public relations will be assimilated at a higher level in the delivery systems," he predicted. "It will be ingrained in management's responsibility" due to the intricacy of the changes and the necessity to communicate in layperson's terms.
This is good news for firms which have been immersed in health care issues for several years. These firms won't "require much retooling," Lewton said. "Reform didn't happen overnight. Long before Bill Clinton became a candidate, managed health care was becoming a priority. The concern about rising health care costs has been with us for two decades. This has been an evolution. Business will boom for firms that have the senior-level staff and the depth of staff to stay in it for the long haul."
But, she hastens to add, "Just because the business is out there doesn't mean that everybody will get it. For firms trying to get on the bandwagon now, it's a big learning curve. The health care industry is very complex. If you don't understand the perplexities of each situation, it's real easy to stub your toe. It's a lot more than just publicity. …